Is social media fuelling anxiety and depression among parents?
Does linking up with other mothers and fathers on Facebook and Instagram make us happier? The answer it would seem is not. A survey by the Priory Group has found that as many as half of parents think that social media sites like Instagram and Facebook create unrealistic and unattainable expectations of family life which fuel anxiety and can trigger depression.
More than one in five parents - 22% - said that happy family pictures posted on Instagram, or exuberant baby blog posts on Facebook and other sites, made them feel inadequate" - while a similar number, 23%, said it made them feel "depressed".
And they didn't think they were alone.
Nearly 40% said they thought idealised images of parenthood - and "over-sharenting" - were fuelling anxiety among new parents, while more than a third (36%) said they thought that baby bloggers and "Instamums" were contributing to rising rates of depression
Instead of creating a friendly "online community", more than one in 10 of those asked said that rather than feeling more connected to other mothers, such sites could make new parents feel more isolated.
While the desire to share the joy of a new-born baby is nothing new, social media platforms have taken proud parenting to a new level, with "baby boasting", "parenting wins" and "mummy-goals" becoming as much part of the daily routine as breastfeeding and nappy-changes.
From the positive pregnancy test, to the gender reveal, the baby shower and even labour, every aspect of a child's early days is now shared online. Previously, these important announcements would have been shared with a close family network, but they are now broadcast to followers and “friends” across the globe.
There are, of course, clear benefits to "being social" - particularly for mothers without a close network to hand. Social media can be reassuring for new parents who turn to their online community for advice on anything from health, relationships, "best buys" and general parenting techniques.
However, for others, endlessly "perfect" posts can have the reverse effect, generating feelings of not measuring up, even though they know that continuous boasting, and glossing over the less positive moments in life, is disingenuous and fake.
"These findings are very concerning, but sadly not surprising. Around 1 in 5 women have mental health problems during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. Depression and anxiety are common, but women can experience a wide range of mental health problems at this important time in their lives. There are many factors which contribute and these unrealistic representations of motherhood on social media definitely do not help.
"Women who criticise themselves, or assume others will judge them, for failing to be the perfect mother they aspire to be, are at increased risk of Postnatal Depression. When social media projects idealised images of parenthood as the norm, it's easy for new parents to feel guilty or inadequate if their experience does not match this."
Dr Green adds; "Previous surveys, such as Maternal Mental Health - Women's Voices (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) have identified the pressure to enjoy motherhood as a reason for women feeling isolated and guilty for not being happy and finding parenting hard. Women highlighted the importance of having a realistic picture of motherhood and an acceptance that it is experienced differently by different women. Being a new parent can be tough. Most new parents find it overwhelming, exhausting and stressful at times."
The Duchess of Cambridge (and mental health ambassador) has also spoken about the pressures of motherhood, saying: "Some of this fear is about the pressure to be a perfect parent; pretending we're all coping perfectly and loving every minute of it. It's right to talk about motherhood as a wonderful thing, but we also need to talk about its stresses and strains."
Dr Green says; "Over half of women with mental health problems in pregnancy or after birth are not identified. Even fewer have the evidence-based treatments they need. Women's sense of shame, embarrassment and failure at being perceived as not coping as a mother is a significant reason for their reluctance to disclose symptoms of depression or anxiety. Pictures of apparently 'perfect parents' on social media can reinforce this. However, it's crucial that women have treatment for mental health problems in pregnancy or after birth - the impact of untreated illness is longstanding for women, partners and children.
How to cope with the effects of "over-sharenting" on social media
Here, Dr Green outlines her guidance to help parents take a breather from social media and help with mental health:
- Have the courage to unfollow or unfriend: Hitting the unfollow button on a 'friend's' Instagram or Facebook account can be a huge relief. Unfollowing celebrity mums or 'insta-mums' will protect you from constantly comparing yourself to them.
- Remember that your mental health is as important as your physical health in pregnancy and after birth. Make a plan as early as possible to ensure you have support for your emotional wellbeing. One good way to do this is to use the Tommy's charity "Pregnancy & Post-Birth Wellbeing Plan" which you can download from www.tommys.org.
- If you've had mental health problems previously, or if you have current symptoms, talk to your midwife, GP or health visitor. They will know about help and support in your area. Getting help early means you have a chance to prevent illness, or at least to have treatment before problems become too serious.
- Look after yourself: eat healthily, exercise and avoid alcohol. It can be hard to find time for yourself as a parent but take any opportunity to relax or have a break.
- Let others help - accept offers of help from family and friends to cook or look after children for you.
- Talk to someone you trust. This may be your partner, a relative or friend, or it could be your GP, midwife or health visitor. It really can help to open up about how you feel. It’s good to talk to someone you know and not just rely on online communities.
Dr Green adds; "If you want to spend time online, use apps and websites that will help you as a parent. It's important that we don't dismiss all social media. Findings from surveys of women, such as 'Falling Through the Gaps' (Centre for Mental Health) and 'Maternal Mental Health - Women's Voices', have identified the significant support women with mental health problems experience through specific websites, apps and other forms of social media."
- Apps and websites such as "Mush" (www.letsmush.com) and Netmums (www.netmums.com) help you connect with other mums so that you can share the ups and downs of parenting and avoid being isolated.
- Netmums offers parent supporters and a free online "helping with Depression course" based on cognitive behavioural therapy.
- Websites for charities such as PANDAS Foundation, Maternal OCD and Action on Postpartum Psychosis offer information and support about specific mental health problems. On line forums can link you to other parents with similar problems.
- Twitter support groups, such as #PNDHour, are invaluable for women and partners to link up with others experiencing similar difficulties.
- High quality information about various mental health problems during and after pregnancy is available on The Royal College of Psychiatrists Health Advice website and App, and the Tommy's website. The Baby Buddy App gives has informative video clips.
If you need further help consider:
- Self-referral to your local IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). These services offer free talking therapies and usually give priority to women during pregnancy and in the first year after birth. You can often take your baby to the appointment. Dads can access IAPT too.
- Depending on the severity of your mental health problems, you could be referred to a Perinatal Mental Health Service - ask your GP if there is one near you.
- Priory Group has Wellbeing Centres for outpatients, and hospitals which can help mothers - and partners - with a range of mental health problems. The Priory Wellbeing Centre in Harley Street has a specialist Parenthood, Pregnancy & Family Life service. Women and partners can be seen from when they start to plan a pregnancy, during pregnancy and any time after birth. Experts offer a range of psychological therapies, including parent-infant, couple and family therapy. Women can also have specialist advice about using medication in pregnancy and breastfeeding. The aim is to help women stay as well as possible and enjoy family life.